Today we had a busy day in Prague. Our first stop was the Jewish Quarter, called Josefhov. It dates back to the 1200s, when Jews of that time were ordered to settle in one area of the city. We visited several synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery before driving to Theresienstadt.
The most memorable synagogue of the day was most certainly the Pinkas Synagogue, built in 1535. It is unique in that, on every inch of the white-washed walls, are inscribed the names of nearly 80,000 Jews who died in the Holocaust. Their names are painted on the walls, and they are listed by family name. Also listed is the date of birth and date of death. The synagogue would have been beautiful and reverent on its own, but seeing 80,000 names in print really put things into perspective.
Even more heartbreaking, the second floor of Pinkas features an exhibit of drawings and paintings that were done by children in Theresienstadt, before being transported to Auschwitz. Seeing hatred and persecution through the eyes of a child is particularly revealing. I think as an adult, you become a little more immune to some of the horrible things you see, whereas a child – still innocent and developing – feels the full impact.
After driving about 45 minutes outside of Prague, we reached the town of Terezin. It was once a fortress, built in the late 18th century by Joseph II. The Gestapo set up their prison in the smaller part of the fortress in the summer of 1940, but later converted the larger fortress into a walled ghetto as well.
Theresienstadt’s original purpose was to concentrate Jews from certain areas in one particular city. These Jews were then to be transferred to extermination camps. Sadly enough, Theresienstadt was also the “model” camp that the Nazis used when organizations like the Red Cross came through to visit.
Even though Theresienstadt was not an execution or labor camp, the death rate was still nearly 50 percent. We saw barracks smaller than my apartment back home – which is pretty small – that slept over 100 people. Malnutrition and disease were rampant. Over the course of four years, 141,000 Jews were deported to Theresienstadt. 34,000 died there, and another 88,000 were transferred to death camps. (In photo: the barracks at Theresienstadt)
We also visited the crematorium in Terezin where bodies were burned. The original ovens remain as well as the dissection rooms, where gold teeth, jewelry, etc., were removed from bodies prior to their cremation. Disturbingly, the main room where the ovens were still smelled of burning, and the dissection rooms smelled of a hospital. It was one of the most disturbing things I’ve experienced.
On our way back into Prague, we passed the assassination site of Reinhardt Heydrich, the Nazi Chief of Security. Heydrich was often considered to be a potential successor to Hitler. His wounds were not fatal, but he died from shrapnel injuries in a hospital literally across the street from where he was attacked.
All in all, it was a day of incredible reverence, and I am sure just a precursor of what’s to come.